Friday afternoon, a wrecked car burst into flames on a steep ravine in Durand-Eastman Park.
Seconds before the car exploded, a young man raced to the scene and pulled an unconscious teenage girl from the driver’s seat.
You didn’t read about these heroics in Saturday’s newspaper. But if all goes well, you can see it next year on movie screens nationwide.
It’s a key scene from King’s Faith, a Christian movie being shot in Monroe County this summer. Directed by noted Webster filmmaker Nicholas DiBella, it relies on financial and volunteer support from several area churches. Its backers hope it will join a wave of successful faith-based films, including The Passion of the Christ (2004) to the Soul Surfer (2011).
“We believe that God is bringing this together,” said executive co-producer James Pavone, 43, of Rochester. “At first, we didn’t have any idea how much we were undertaking. Now we all feel like we are being led.”
The movie portrays troubled teenagers on a tough path to discovering their faith. Brendan, the last-minute rescuer, is a former gang member who began reading the Bible in prison. Natalie, the crash victim, is a cheerleader sentenced to community service after the police find drugs in her car. The pair start a romance threatened by Brendan’s old gang and Natalie’s skeptical family.
A key target audience for King’s Faith will be teenagers who identify with its heroes’ turbulent search for answers.
“There are plenty of movies targeted for believers,” said Pavone. “We wanted to reach beyond that, appealing to young adults who are far from God.”
DiBella didn’t envision King’s Faith as a Christian movie. His last major hit was Cherry Crush, a dark thriller about a 17-year-old photographer drawn to murder by a scheming beauty. But three years ago, he was working on a new script and asked Pavone to read it.
“I wasn’t writing it as a religious movie,” recalled DiBella, who had hired Pavone as an actor in the 1980s. “But the elements were all there. Jim asked me, ‘Are you familiar with faith-based markets?'”
Popular movies on biblical themes had been produced at least since 1912, when the German Das Mirakel and the American From the Manger to the Cross were released. The genre got a tremendous boost in 2004 from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which grossed $610 million internationally.
Christian movie producers always have described their goal as biblical outreach rather than profits. Still, some recent films have done remarkably well at the box office.
Fireproof (2008), which depicts a husband’s struggle to avoid a divorce, cost $500,000 to produce and took in $34 million. Jumping the Broom, a tale of rich and poor African-American families clashing at a wedding, earned $37 million on a $6 million budget. Soul Surfer, a true story about a young surfer attacked by a shark, cost $18 million and grossed $44 million. All three films received support from large church groups.
But these are rare success stories in a tight, recession-era market. Just to break even, most Christian movie producers carefully study how to attract investors and audiences.
A recent local example is The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry (2009), about an old man who shows three boys how to be committed Christians. Director Rich Christiano, a Waterloo native, shot it in Brockport and Holley, Orleans County.
Before its release, churches and Christian groups each paid $2,000 to book a theater. They got it back if the movie made $4,500 at that venue. According to the Internet Movie Database , The Secrets grossed $1.36 million on a $900,000 investment — a respectable showing, except perhaps by Mel Gibson’s standards.
DiBella and Pavone have a different business model. They plan to meet the film’s $750,000 budget from a combination of church and secular donations. So far, they have raised $550,000.
He’s keeping expenses low by relying on volunteer labor and shoot sites in Rochester, Webster, Hilton and Greece. A key backer for financing and manpower is Hope Lutheran Church in Greece. About 250 congregation members have been volunteering for the production, from setting up breakfast to transporting equipment.
Pavone and DiBella asked the church’s leaders for their support early last year. “For me, it’s a win-win in that the message of Jesus Christ will get out,” said Pastor Larry Stojkovic, a Greece resident.
Browncroft Community Church, Journey Christian Church and other local houses of worship also have supplied volunteers. In addition to volunteers’ time, churches and other groups have donated props, food and the use of their vans. For distribution, the King’s Faith producers are contacting faith-based movie houses run by Sony and Fox. Pavone also asked Kirk Dueker, associate pastor at Hope Lutheran Church, to advise whether the movie is “biblically sound.”
“There is a hunger for movies with powerful, faith-based messages,” said Dueker, a 44-year-old Greece resident. “We’re involved with King’s Faith because of its message: No matter what we’ve done in the past, God is able to forgive and redeem.”
Another familiar figure in Greece, Judith Ranaletta, the newly retired vocal music director at Greece Athena High School, suggested several of her students — including Greece Athena senior Michael Leadbetter — as actors.
“Nick DiBella gave me a script to read in front of the camera,” said Leadbetter, 17. “A week later he phoned me to say I’d gotten the part. This is so cool — I feel very blessed.”
The lead actors, however, are professionals from Manhattan and Los Angeles. Brendan is played by Crawford Wilson (Judging Amy, Secrets of the Mountain) and Natalie by Kayla Compton (Entourage).
At Friday’s shoot, Natalie was slumped over the steering wheel, fake blood dribbling from her nose. Smoke poured from the engine, giving Brandon his cue. “Somebody get help!” he yelled. “The car’s on fire!”
But assistant director Daniel Lugo halted the shoot. “It wasn’t very good smoke in there,” he said. It was the 191st take since shooting began on July 26, and the crew had seen better days. A technician tripped over a bee’s nest and was stung repeatedly. Now rain was drenching the set, forcing Lugo to cut his losses. The cast headed to lunch in a park pavilion, where DiBella discussed his movie’s prospects.
“We’re at a good time,” he said. “We’re continuing to raise money and already have enough to get King’s Faith into post-production.”
Shooting should be done by Aug. 27. Nationwide release is planned next year, though no date has been set. Pavone also hopes for a DVD version that will include Bible discussion guides. “It’ll be good for youth to talk about the issues they face,” he said. “That is a big part of our mission.”
For more about King’s Faith: http://kingsfaith.com./.
The director of King’s Faith has had an illustrious local career:
1979: He graduates from Cardinal Mooney High School, studies optical engineering at the University of Rochester but drops out to make movies. He first creates films for Eastman Kodak Co.’s entertainment division.
1990: He wins an internship to the American Film Institute, a training program for aspiring filmmakers.
1994: Rapture 505, his movie about troubled teens from a dysfunctional family, debuts in Greece.
2007: Cherry Crush, a low-budget teen thriller, gets its world premiere at the Little Theatre.
2011: He produces King’s Faith.
Christian film fest
In addition to producing Christian films, the Rochester area regularly hosts Christian musicals, art exhibits and film festivals. The next major event will be the Maranatha Christian International Film Festival, held Sept. 2 and 3 at Roberts Wesleyan College’s Cultural Life Center in Chili. It will feature 65 Christian movies from around the world, six international speakers and several film production companies.
For tickets and information, go to http://maranathafilmfest.com.